ISIS and its Use of Technology in Modern Day Terrorism
In what seems like a horrifying travesty of popular culture, Isis has incorporated numerous aspects of social media and the virtual world in its propaganda tactics. In the light of the recent speculations of having used PlayStation 4 to carry out the Paris attacks on the 13th of November, one cannot but discuss the tech-expertise of the extremist group.
It’s been quite a while to the use of #catsofjihad by individuals belonging to fundamentalists groups on social media now. No one is exactly sure if it is a mockery of the internet’s trend of obsessing over cats (because those seem to be the prime concern of religious extremists these days -internet and its trends), or if it’s some kind of twisted, dark humour.
Video Games and Memes:
Isis has borrowed many of its tool from Western popular trends to get their message across, and have turned them upon themselves. In a haunting recruiting video, the group used the video game Grand Theft Auto, to call for people to join them.
If this wasn’t enough, internet is home to numerous memes on the militant group – no one knows if they have been created by ISIS or its supporters or those simply to have a laugh on the internet. And thanks to the tech-savvy nature of modern day terrorism, it isn’t hard for the people creating this content to erase their tracks in virtual space.
One of the recruitment videos went ahead to claim,”Your games which are producing from you, we do the same actions in the battlefields!!” [sic]
Terrorists have been known to have used Google Earth and Street View to organize attacks in recent times. Communication technology which includes encryption of mobile phone calls and messages, is more secure than it has ever been in the past.
Darknet communities and peer-to-peer networks allow dissemination of large amounts of data without leaving an online trail. Video game communities are speculated to be used in the same manner. With all the violence and graphic content inherently a part of such communities, it’s not a difficult task to veil an exchange between terrorist groups online.
Social Media, Video Games and Hollywood:
Twitter and Facebook are the softest targets of hacking by Isis members to assert their propagandist activities in virtual space, especially for audiences who would otherwise have no exposure to such content. Additionally, Isis members have also not shied away from publicly participating in online interaction -just last week, a Dutch member of the group took to answering questions on Tumblr.
Isis may not be more than just primitively brutal in the course of its actions, but the same can’t be said of their techniques of spreading propaganda and sending out calls for recruitment. They have realised the need of a swanky tech vocabulary in order to last in a world so heavily dominated by virtual media.
Gone are the days of Osama Bin Laden’s fuzzy, blurry videos. Contemporary terrorist organisations use documentaries which explore all sorts of camera angles that can possibly be employed, footage of bomb explosions, weapons and graphic images to convey their intentions.
In September 2014, Isis released an hour-long documentary style film, Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun. The film uses skillfully crafted prose as the narrator speaks in English, “The heavy shelling let out thunderous roars that cast fear into the hearts of the enemy, and left them breathing the thick fumes of death.”
Steven Rose aptly comments on this when he says, “The Isis regime might have outlawed music, singing, smoking and drinking alcohol, but it clearly embraces Final Cut Pro.”
The song lyrics are swept across the screen in Arabic and English that follows the Latin-script., “Brothers rise up! Claim your victory! Let’s go! Let’s go for jihad!” Slowly steadily the realisation sets in that the song is actually in German.
Needless to say, the film only harps on the glorification of the group’s ideologies and activities. There is little mention of atrocities committed by the group -like rape, mass plundering and destruction of mosques, and more focus on the portrayal of some sort of imagined Isis utopia of male camaraderie and brotherhood -minus any women, of course.
YouTube has been a medium of spreading its message in more ways than one for Isis. Videos of its hostages has been released regularly over a period of time to strike terror, and hit closer home in the countries of the victims. It’s almost like the group is working on making the torture of its hostages look professional, coming hauntingly close to a gruesome imitation of slasher films.
In addition to beheading and burning alive its hostages in the past, there are dozens of amateur videos put forth by Isis’s foot soldiers which are then repeatedly watched and circulated all over the world. Mostly all of these videos and films have been made using standard equipment like DSLRs and camcorders. Clearly Isis is equipped with its knowledge of Hollywood movies, video games, American news channels, reality television and music videos.
ISIS’s Twitter App:
In early 2014, Isis launched a Twitter app called Dawn of Glad Tidings. The app uses the Arab language and retweets all Islamic State media releases centrally from personal accounts, and from official and sympathetic accounts, on every social media platform under the sun. Reports also suggest that the organisation has a team of dedicated editors to take care of the content that goes up on its many virtual portals. The app has been used to post countless pro-Isis tweets directly to the newsfeed of users.
In addition to this, Isis has also been using the already existing apps, websites, softwares and all sorts of virtual entities. While SoundCloud has been used to release audio reports, Instagram and WhatsApp have been the platforms to share graphic content in the form of videos and images.
Battle summaries have been published on JustPaste, while hundreds of questions have been answered about joining Isis on Ask.fm. The website also gives guidelines regarding the footwear to carry and availability of toothbrushes for new recruits.
Reportedly, many Isis volunteers have been put in touch with members of the organisation in Turkey or Syria following an introduction that says, “Kik me”, followed by discussion in private on many smartphones-based virtual platforms.
A Media Centre that Makes Programmes in German and French:
Not to be confused with the Arab newspaper, Al Hayat, Isis runs its own media centre called Al Hayat Media and aims to reach out predominantly to young, non-Arabic speaking viewers. This is a first of its kind broadcasting unit, unprecedented in the history of Islamic extremism. With a strong echo of Al Jazeera in its logo, the centre makes programmes in several languages including German, English and French.
From Twitter-friendly “Mujatweets” to documentary-like films and Hollywood style trailers, Al Hayat Media takes care of it all. The centre also runs English-language PDF based audio content and draws analogies between Hollywood flicks like Noah and Isis’ self-proclaimed Caliphate -just when you thought terrorism was about boorish bearded men struggling to string English words in a coherent sentence together, huh?
Opposition and Resistance to Terrorist Activities:
The US government took to the virtual world as well, launching their own counter-movement against the militant group. The government has published regular updates on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #ThinkAgainTurnAway about the atrocities committed by Isis.
— Anonymous Aussie (@AnonyAussie) November 23, 2015
How could this group of “hacktivists” not be mentioned when it came to anti-Isis movements? Anonymous has actively and openly opposed Isis over the past couple of weeks, especially post Charlie Hebdo.
— Anonymous (@GroupAnon) November 15, 2015
After the attack in Paris, Anonymous launched yet another series of cyber attacks against the organisation. Operation Isis and Operation Paris have become two of the most active projects of Anonymous lately, and accumulated their own fair share of supporters as well as haters.
Irrespective of the final outcome of these activities, social media continues to be used by Isis as a tool for recruitment and propaganda. The threat of Isis and its usage of technology has become evident enough to lead world leaders like the British Prime Minister, David Cameron to express his desires of outlawing “strong” encryption on messaging services. He declared it earlier this year in January in an attempt to intercept messages between terrorists.
Bangladesh too has been considering blocking services like WhatsApp and Viber in an attempt to prevent terrorist activity by thwarting communication. The intelligence agencies of the country had reported exchange of messages of subversive content between groups, leading Bangladesh to block messaging apps not only like WhatsApp and Viber, but also Tango and Line.
Isis provides a jarring contrast by coupling primitive violence of its visceral brutality with updated and the most evolved technology. However, despite this, censorship and close monitoring of the activities of civilians in virtual space do not seem to be the solution.
Google executive David Drummond suggests an answer: “We want alternatives. For many, the answer seems to be censorship. Although we take down the worst content from our sites, at Google, given the proliferation of content online we don’t believe that censoring the existence of Isis on Google, YouTube or social media will dampen their impact really.
We think there is a better way to combat the hateful rhetoric of Isis, by countering it with reason. Understand it. Standing up to it. Enforced silence is not the answer. Drowning out the harmful ideology with better messages, with reasonable messages, is the better way.”
Arguments both for and against policing social media are firm and emphatic and there is no imminent conclusion in sight. But that shouldn’t stop us from going the corny way and take refuge in a quote -simply because not only is it incredibly apt in the context, and became viral following the Paris attacks, but also because it’s something the world needs to hear, and remember right now. Fred Rogers says, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Remember, to always spot the helpers.